Killers Kill, Dead Men Die
With a star corpse, and suspects ranging from Helen Mirren to Forest Whitaker, Annie Leibovitz and Michael Roberts create a film noir masterpiece to die for.
Related article: “The Big Shoot,” by Annie Leibovitz. Video: Vanity Fair Pictures presents Killers Kill, Dead Men Die.More video: Behind-the-scenes footage from the film noir shoots. Photos: Behind the scenes at the film noir shoots.
A clean print of the lost film noir classic Killers Kill, Dead Men Die was miraculously discovered at a Mulholland Drive lawn sale last month, resolving a mystery that has transfixed noirfans for decades. Little was known about the film for certain, though it has been the subject of wild rumors ever since the screenplay was written, probably in 1942, by Raymond Chandler (based on “The Big Blood,” a story by James M. Cain, and later revised, as No Orchids for Oscar, by Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner). It is believed that Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum were originally cast in the roles of private detectives Oscar Slade and Dan O’Bannion, only to be replaced, several years later, by Sterling Hayden and Glenn Ford, and then—most intriguingly—by Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. We know that Lauren Bacall loved the original script. But she passed her troubled-heiress role to Barbara Stanwyck when Fritz Lang replaced John Huston as director. (Lang later ceded to Stanley Kubrick, who let Joseph Losey take over when RKO sold the project to Republic Studios.) It is suspected that additional scenes were shot with Joan Crawford, Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame, Ida Lupino, and Jimmy Stewart throughout the 1950s, when the picture was known by its two shooting titles, Dame Danger and He Died by Murder. After acquiring the Republic library in the 1980s, Ted Turner reportedly planned a colorized version of the film, which, curiously, is one of the few noirs actually shot in color. In this period certain scenes are also thought to have been reshot with Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, Melanie Griffith, and Michael Paré, under the direction of Brian De Palma. Based on a close examination of the newly discovered film stock (and the movie’s credit sequence, opposite), several noir scholars have even gone as far as to suggest that the picture was not completed until this year.
It’s too bad, since this delay has deprived us of viewing an undeniable film noir classic. Every element of the genre is here: The Femme Fatale, sultry, scheming, and doped up on tranquilizers; The Private Dick, crawling through the gutter in search of a diamond garter; The Chanteuse and The Champ; The Doll and The Aristocrat; The Spy who knows too little and The Moll who knows too much; mistaken identity and double indemnity; high life and low society; shocking—though possibly nonsensical—plot turns; despair, lust, blood violence, and the cruel fist of fate. Finally, lurking in the shadows behind all this is the menacing figure of The Killer. And what does he do? Why, he does what all killers do: he kills.
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- THE GUMSHOES. INT. WEST L.A., OSCAR SLADE DETECTIVE AGENCY, INC.—NIGHT
- Like any private eye worth his money clip, Oscar Slade (Bruce Willis) is not a talkative man, especially when he’s in the company of his junior partner, Dan O’Bannion (Ben Affleck), and their young protégé, Jimmy (Tobey Maguire). But this night is different. Oscar’s got something on his mind.
Oscar: There’s only two types of people in this town: the Killers and the Killed. If you’re not the one, you’re gonna end up the other.
Jimmy: What about the dames, chief? Where do they fit in?
Oscar: Have you seen the dames in this town? Warm beneath the sheets, hot under the collar, and ice-cold under the skin. That reminds me—I’ve got an appointment. Don’t wait up, fellas. I might be a while.
Dissolve to …
- THE CRIME SCENE. EXT. SUNSET & VERDUGO—NIGHT—RAIN
- On a hard bed of wet L.A. pavement, Oscar (Bruce Willis) has begun his eternal rest. Sweet dreams, detective. Someone has seen fit to tip off shutterbug Sam Brady (James McAvoy), formerly of The Sun, lately of Confidential.The doll with the .44 (Kirsten Dunst) appears to be none other than Laura Lydeker, an heiress whose father owns half the lemon trees in the state of California and whose mother owns the other half. Laura says she has no idea how she ended up here with a pistol in her hand. “I’ve never been fond of guns,” she tells the police. “They make an awful racket.”
She also says she’s not sure she’s Laura Lydeker. It seems she has suffered a light blow to the skull. The only thing she’s certain of is that she would like to slip into something nice and dry, preferably a martini—gin, with a kiss of Benzedrine. Funny, though, the bullets in her pistol don’t match the lead souvenirs in Oscar’s back.
- LAST RITES. EXT. HOLLYWOOD MEMORIAL PARK CEMETERY—DAY
- There are three types of funerals: celebratory, sad, and sad-sack. This sparsely attended affair punctuating the life of a private dick must be filed under the last category. Tamiko Ohira (Rinko Kikuchi), “queenpin” of Japantown’s numbers racket, is intent on making sure Oscar stays in the ground, while skid-row preacher Abelard (Bill Nighy), who engaged in petty heists with the deceased during their misspent youth, can’t say he didn’t see this coming. The guttersnipe orphan girl (Abigail Breslin) is the only one able to produce anything resembling real tears, but what’s her angle? Just because she’s a kid doesn’t mean she’s on the level. Mourning attire suits the lovely songbird Doña Perfecta (Penélope Cruz), but if that’s how she dresses for a funeral, imagine what she puts on for the late show (and peels off for the later show). O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) takes notice. Beautiful girls need protection in this town. And O’Bannion’s got a watchful eye.
- THE LADIES OF L.A. INT. POWDER ROOM, SNYDER’S RESTAURANT—NIGHT
- Socialite Eve Greeley-Waddington (Anjelica Huston) finds it amusing, but not surprising, that the Lydeker name has arisen in connection with the murder of a low-life shamus. “Lemons grow on trees,” she says, alluding to the Lydeker-family business. “Reputations, decidedly, do not.” Estelle Willisford (Sharon Stone), of the department-store Willisfords, could not agree more, once she’s through applying lip paint. And if Ethel Barringsley (Diane Lane) seems less than enthralled by the topic at hand, she probably has her reasons—and damned interesting ones, at that.
- THE INTERROGATION. INT. HOLLYWOOD PRECINCT HOUSE—NIGHT
- Detective James Archer (Alec Baldwin), of the L.A.P.D. homicide squad, hears out the soliloquy of surprise informant Muriel Slade (Jennifer Connelly), twin sister of the murdered man. Her story holds together very well—too well, in fact. Beat cop Mack Shaughnessy (Aaron Eckhart) keeps a grip on his stick, just in case her tale starts making even more sense.
Det. Archer: Murder is a savage affair, Miss Slade.
Muriel: And what kind of affairs do you prefer, Detective?
Det. Archer: That’s my own business, Miss Slade.
Muriel: Your own business, huh? Any chance I could make partner?
Det. Archer: Lady, your partner is murder. And it’s a silent partner.
Shaughnessy (thinking): If it’s silent, why don’t you two lovebirds shut it? This ain’t the El Havana.
Wipe to …
- THE CLUB. INT. EL HAVANA—NIGHT
- Who says money can’t buy happiness? It had certainly better, especially when a cocktail in this establishment costs upwards of three clams. Torch singer June Holliday (Jennifer Hudson) warms up her pipes with “My Man (Is No Longer Around)” for a roomful of Toluca Lake swells (from left: Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Adam Beach, Amy Adams, and Derek Luke), none of whom has a motive in the slaying of Oscar Slade, which is exactly what makes them suspicious. The only one seemingly not enjoying himself this evening isConfidential photographer Sam Brady (James McAvoy), but he revels in misery, which means he’s content in his own way. Is that cigarette girl (Evan Rachel Wood) really a cigarette girl? Are her intentions as dark as those chocolates?
Sam: Or is it that those chocolates are as sweet as the look in your eye?
Cigarette Girl: Sorry, Sam. They’re caramels.
- THE SNOOP. INT. O’HANLON STABLES, SAN FERNANDO VALLEY—NIGHT
- When a big-time gambler like Oscar Slade ends up dead (and therefore unable to pay off his racetrack debts), a big-time dealer in Thoroughbred flesh like James O’Hanlon (Peter O’Toole) gets suspicious. And when O’Hanlon gets suspicious, the first name that comes to his mind is Lydeker—a family known not only for its lemon trees, but also for its distressingly beautiful female scions. O’Hanlon trembles to think of what he might do if he were to get within striking distance of that kind of horse flesh. Oh yes, he knows a thing or two about breeding, he does … Luckily for Rebecca Lydeker (Naomi Watts), Laura’s older sister, she developed an expertise in keeping herself hidden, at the girls’ boarding academy she attended not so long ago: Stay real quiet-like … and very still … Don’t even breathe. (Is that the rustle of a skirt, or just the Santa Ana winds?) And once the prefect is gone, a girl is free to resume her nocturnal mischief without interruption.
Still, sneaking off to the clubs on Central Avenue to dig some junkie horn blower is one thing. Snooping around the O’Hanlon Stables … well, it’s no roll in the hay, even when it is. But if Rebecca can’t find the thing she’s looking for—the thing that holds the key to everything—anything could happen, and very well might!
- THE RING. INT. THE FORUM—NIGHT
- Champ turned trainer Mike “Tiny” Galento (Sylvester Stallone) has taught Sugar Foot Robinson (Djimon Hounsou) the true meaning of boxing: when they tell you to take out your opponent in the fourth, you take him out in the fourth, and you don’t ask questions—got it? Bootlegger turned trainer Magic Pete (Forest Whitaker) has similarly instructed his fighter, School Boy Simmons (Robert Downey Jr.), that the only sweet thing about “the sweet science” is the wad of bills they hand you during the post-fight rubdown. Tonight’s wad will be fat indeed. The lady in red (Jessica Biel) doesn’t mind if you take a dive, so long as you can keep her neck in chinchilla. Private eye Jimmy (Tobey Maguire) has made the scene because he knows Oscar placed a not-so-friendly wager on tonight’s entertainment. He knows something else too: dead men don’t collect their winnings.
Spin dissolve to …
- THE GETAWAY. INT./EXT. MULHOLLAND DRIVE—NIGHT
- Cue swirling, maddening violins. Tilda Lydeker (Helen Mirren), aunt to Laura and Rebecca Lydeker, paramour to three-fourths of Beverly Hills circa 1929, and the brains behind the city’s third-largest citrus fortune, must drive, and she must drive fast. She knows just how lemonade is made in this town, and she knows Oscar learned the tricks of her trade all too well, and she knows how it all went sour. Oscar may have been just some low-life private dick, and he may have been too free with his fists, but sometimes a woman needs a man who’s man enough to remind her that she’s a woman—that is, if she’s woman enough to take it. And Tilda could take it. Oh, how she could take it. She took it, and she took it, and she took it again. And then once more for laughs.
Along for the ride is Tilda’s older half-sister, Alma (Judi Dench), issue of their father’s youthful dalliance—or was it something more sinister?—with the beautiful daughter of migrant citrus pickers. They say Alma’s “slow,” but, like her half-sister, when it comes to trouble she’s awfully swift on the pickup.
- THE DRESSING ROOM. INT. EL HAVANA, BACKSTAGE—NIGHT
- The Cuban (Pedro Almodóvar) runs a nice, clean club. He doesn’t want any trouble. He may have heard things, though. What kinds of things? Just things, that’s all. Things that make a man whisper “murder” in the night. His number-one songbird, Doña Perfecta (Penélope Cruz), who’ll be closing tonight’s bill with her signature medley—a rousing patriotic number, a love ballad, and a socko rumba—elaborates: She says she may or may not have heard that Oscar, on the night he was killed, had placed a certain bet on a certain prizefight. Beyond that, she knows nada. Except that the fight in question may or may not be taking place at the Forum this very night, and that School Boy Simmons may or may not be planning to taste the canvas in Round Four of his bout with Sugar Foot Robinson.
- LOBBY OF THE DAMNED. INT. HOTEL LA BREA—NIGHT
- Making like lovebirds, undercover police detectives Sloan (Edward Norton) and Minsky (Kate Winslet) are working the Hotel La Brea on a tip. The place is a rattrap, but that’s why they’re here: to trap rats. And, with any luck, exterminate them. The owner, blind racketeer Marlon Doppel (Robert De Niro), knows who offed poor Oscar, but he’s not saying. Neither is Muriel Slade (Jennifer Connelly), who has so deftly misled the law for reasons having to do with saving her own skin. The languid drink of water in the corner (Julianne Moore) is content to know not much of anything beyond which gentleman will take on the job of keeping her in silk. Tilda Lydeker (Helen Mirren) arrives in search of answers, unaware that she may be checking in one last time before checking out for good.
- END OF THE PARTY. INT. BEVERLY HILLS HOME OF LAURA LYDEKER—DAWN
- For most of L.A., it’s morning. For those here, it will always be last night. Jimmy (Tobey Maguire) searches the piano keys for a melody that will make sense of it all. The youngest Lydeker, Lydia (Jessica Alba), may be willing to carry his tune, but Ethel Barringsley (Diane Lane) listens without hearing a note. She hasn’t been the same since Oscar died, and her husband, Robert Barringsley (James Franco), hasn’t been the same since she hasn’t been the same. Behind Daddy’s bookshelves, Laura Lydeker (Kirsten Dunst) finds herself almost fully recovered from her amnesia, but the young lemon heiress wishes she could forget what she’s seen all over again. School Boy Simmons (Robert Downey Jr.), now a wealthy ex-prizefighter, has helped her through her darkest hours. Speaking of which, what did happen last night? Shouldn’t Aunt Tilda have slunk in by now, the usual cheap aftershave on her breath?
Dissolve to …
- THE SHOOT-OUT. EXT. HOTEL LA BREA, FIRE ESCAPE—NIGHT
Is this a flashback, or did the projectionist mix up the reels? Even the director can’t be sure. Back at the Hotel La Brea, undercover cop Minsky (Kate Winslet) would like a word with Tilda (Helen Mirren), but if not, the flatfoot femme is more than happy to let her lady pistol do the talking for both of them. And when her pistol starts talking … well, like a lot of ladies, it’s hard to shut up.
Once the cartridges are emptied, we find two beauties taking the big sleep in the L.A. night. A sleep that won’t be haunted by the secret Tilda is taking with her to the Lydeker-family mausoleum (a ways down Halcyon Lane from Oscar’s sorry plot). A sleep that won’t be disturbed by the visage of the man she may or may not have hired—for a cost beyond price—to plug poor Oscar. A mad face, leering and twisted. And the most devilish eyebrows. It is the face of …
- THE BIG REVEAL. EXT. SOMEWHERE IN L.A.—DUSK
- … the face of this man (Jack Nicholson), who kills for love, or money, or some combination of the two. Or maybe it’s just for kicks. Wherever people try to make themselves into something good and decent, wherever a man tries to make that one last score, wherever a woman feels like yielding to a fellow, he is there. In a town where the law is kill or be killed, die or die later, he is always watching, always waiting for his chance, and revealing himself only in the final reel, with the City of So-Called Angels spreading below him like a still-warm bloodslick.
Forget it, Oscar. It’s … somewhere.
Pull back to reveal: a wild, unpruned lemon grove.